My futile protest against Portland raising the tobacco purchase age to 21

The Portland City Council is poised to take another giant step toward the establishment of a mini “nanny state” in Maine’s largest city. On April 25, councilors unanimously voted to pursue a local ordinance that would raise the legal age to buy any product containing nicotine from 18 to 21. The proposal must make its way through a council committee and then be brought back for a final vote in the coming weeks, but its unanimous endorsement last month indicates this is essentially a done deal.

I’d be surprised if anyone on the council or in the public even questioned the ordinance, much less criticized it. Like hard candy to the elderly, this kind of feel-good legislation is irresistible for local politicians. It’ll allow Portland city councilors to claim they’re working to improve public health — even as many, if not most of them vote this month to close a desperately needed public health clinic on India Street without bothering to ensure there’s a workable plan to transition patients to another facility.

Plus, there’s no constituency to oppose the measure. The vanishingly small pool of smokers between the ages of 18 and 20 have no organization to lobby on their behalf, assuming any of them are even aware of the proposal. Meanwhile, I’m sure all manner of goody-goody anti-smoking groups are clamoring to take credit for promoting the ordinance, in order to justify their grant funding and feel the cheap buzz of self-righteousness.

An ash tray in Portland's Monument Square. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

An ashtray in Portland’s Monument Square. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

So I guess it’s up to me to raise my voice against this law, as futile as the protest will surely be.

Let’s make one thing clear right away: I’m not saying it’s a good idea to smoke or chew tobacco. I’m fully aware that doing so greatly increases one’s risk of cancer. And I agree that young people should be especially wary of taking up bad habits that could be harder to break later in life due to the fact they started early.

But I am adamantly opposed to governments repealing the freedoms adults possess to responsibly enjoy legal products or the plants that grow naturally from the earth.

The consensus in this country is that adulthood begins at age 18. At 18, you can legally fight in a war (and, if enlisted, carry a concealed firearm for personal use, without a permit), drive a car without restrictions, and ride a snowmobile without a helmet in Maine. Unlike the ingestion of nicotine, any of those activities can cause your immediate death or the death of others with whom you come into contact. To consider young adults old enough take on ISIS militants but too young to buy a pack of Camel Lights is absurd and insulting. (Yes, the same argument can be made for alcohol, and I agree with the hundred-plus college presidents who’ve signed on to the Amethyst Initiative, which promotes the reexamination of the legal drinking age.)

Because Portland’s proposed nicotine ordinance is absurd and insulting, its practical effect will be to cause further alienation and resentment among those young people who are already attracted to behaviors, like smoking, that challenge authority and social norms. As routinely happens with alcohol, young adults will flaunt the law and find other means to procure the illicit products (in this case, by driving to Westbrook or South Portland, or buying online).

Portland’s ordinance would also apply to e-cigarettes and vaporizers, despite the fact those devices, which deliver nicotine without smoke, are a much healthier alternative. As The New York Times reported last week, Britain’s prestigious Royal College of Physicians recently published a report that “concludes resoundingly that … the devices are helping people more than harming them, and that the worries about them — including that using them will lead young people to eventually start smoking traditional cigarettes — have not come to pass.”

Sadly, if you’re a Portland city councilor, history has shown that you won’t allow sound science and common sense to interfere with your little social-engineering projects — especially when those affected have little or no political power, like the young and the poor. And from banning the sale of nicotine to adults ages 18 through 20, it’s a small step to criminalizing the use of nicotine products by those in that age group, which will only further antagonize young people and undermine the next generation’s respect for the law.

Like I said, there’s no use trying to stop these nine nannies from passing dumb laws like this. It’s best to just smile, put the stale butterscotch in your pocket, and say, “Thank you very much, Grammy.” You can throw the candy away later, when they’re not looking.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.